The bright yellow border gracing the cover of National Geographic is one of the most recognizable designs in publishing. And the pioneering editor who created it not only built a media empire, but a Bethesda home that became a haven for wildlife.
Gilbert Grosvenor and his identical twin, Edwin, were born in 1875 on the European side of the Bosporus in Constantinople, where their father taught history at the American-endowed Robert College. Later, the father accepted a professorship at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where the two boys became lively fixtures on campus. They played doubles on the tennis team, won scholastic prizes, pledged Phi Beta Kappa—and dressed alike to their own amusement and the confusion of classmates.
The brothers’ reputation intrigued Mable Hubbard Bell, a friend of their father, mother of two eligible young daughters and wife of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. She invited the twins to the Bells’ summer place in Nova Scotia, where her eldest daughter took a fancy to Gilbert. Her mother was unimpressed by the slight, spindly young man.“I wish we could put Elsie in position to meet big young men,” she wrote her husband in 1899. “I am sure she ought to have someone stronger than Gilbert, he is sweet but I doubt his strength.”
Elsie, however, longed for Grosvenor, who had taken a teaching position at a school for boys in Englewood, N.J., far from the Bells’ Washington, D.C., home. So her father used his position as president of the National Geographic Society to secure an assistant editorship for the young man at the society’s magazine, which was published in the nation’s capital. Soon the couple was engaged.
Grosvenor proved more than capable. The magazine was “finally issued on time,” Bell extolled in a letter to the society’s board in 1900, “and it had been very greatly improved owing to Mr. Grosvenor’s connection with it.” He recommended the young man be elevated to managing editor. Grosvenor won the promotion and began radically reworking the magazine.
It had a reputation as a stodgy journal written primarily for university researchers and government scientists. “Why not popularize the science of geography and take it into the homes of the people?” Grosvenor recalled wondering in a 1943 interview in Time. “Why not transform the Society’s magazine from one of cold geographic fact, expressed in hieroglyphic terms which the layman could not understand, into a vehicle for carrying the living, breathing, human-interest truth about this great world of ours to the people?”
In 1903, Grosvenor rose to editor-in-chief and began treating readers to vividly illustrated articles on an array of topics, from the reindeer industry in Alaska to the diamond mines of South Africa, from ostrich farming to Philippine headhunters. He considered pictures more important than words, and would pioneer the use of color photography, with the first natural-color photographs of the Arctic, the stratosphere, an eclipse and more. As a result, the magazine’s circulation soared from 1,400 in 1899 to 74,000 in 1910. By 1920, it would surpass 700,000.
Grosvenor’s passion for nature brought him from Washington to Bethesda in 1912, when he purchased a heavily wooded, 100-acre farm north of the town center, just off the old Rockville Pike. He named the property Wild Acres, and the rustic farmhouse there, with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing, became a sylvan retreat for him, Elsie and their six children (a seventh would arrive in 1918).
What excited Grosvenor about the property was its profusion of birds, prompting him in 1913 to run a series of color photographs in the magazine of “Fifty Common Birds of Farm and Orchard,” all residing on his Bethesda estate. He made things so attractive for birds—installing bird boxes and keeping pans of fresh water around the farm—that Henry W. Henshaw, chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Biological Survey, toured the property in 1915. Afterward, he dispatched Dr. Wells W. Cooke of the survey to make an official count of the nesting birds on a single acre near the farmhouse. Cooke found 59 pairs of birds with young or eggs in the nests, and pronounced this “the highest number of land birds inhabiting one acre in the continental United States that had yet been reported to the Department of Agriculture or to any Audubon Society.”
“I attribute our success,” Grosvenor said, “to shooting the sparrows and driving all cats away.”
Eventually the family outgrew the farmhouse, and in 1928 the dwelling was razed. Grosvenor hired noted Washington architect Arthur B. Heaton to design a new residence. Heaton had produced an astonishing range of buildings, including the Washington Sanitarium (now Washington Adventist Hospital) in Takoma Park, Sidwell Friends School, Calvary M.E. Church in D.C., the National Geographic Society Administration Building on M Street in D.C., hamburger restaurants for the Blue Bell chain, the Chevy Chase Library and the Sacks brothers’ shopping center at the corner of Leland and Wisconsin in downtown Bethesda. His relief panels depicting automotive details from the 1925 Capital Garage are preserved by the Smithsonian Institution as “relics of Washington’s most elaborate parking garage.”
Heaton and Grosvenor settled on the Tudor Revival style, then de rigueur for country estates. The long, tripartite house was anchored in the center by a threestory section built of stone trucked in from the Stoneyhurst quarries out River Road in Bethesda. To the east was a two-story wing, brick below and half-timbered walls above, the interstices filled with plaster, a defining feature of the Tudor style. To the west was a low, two-story stone wing with a broad porch and a long dormer projecting from the roof.
The northern facade, approached by a circular driveway, featured a projecting pavilion in the center of the main block, with a decorative wood-and-wrought-iron door set in an archway surmounted by the Grosvenor coat of arms, with sprightly greyhounds carved in stone. A rofusion of gabled dormers, two-, three- and four part windows, protruding bays and an eclectic mix of building materials gave the house an organic appearance, as if the sections were added over time. Four massive brick chimneys rose from a roof covered in slate tiles imported from England.
Inside, the social rooms on the first floor featured the finest wood and plaster finishes, including a frieze of winsome birds and corner plaques of barn owls, created by the Japanese artist Hashime Murayama, whose watercolors of fish and fowl had decorated the pages of National Geographic. Three libraries held Grosvenor’s vast collection of books. The mantels and paneling in one library came from Alexander Graham Bell’s house, which stood at 1331 Connecticut Ave. in D.C. until 1927, when it was torn down five years after the inventor’s death. Displayed in the libraries were early models of Bell’s telephone, a gallery of family portraits and, on a mantelpiece, a small rock. That last came from one of the Grosvenor Mountains in Antarctica, along with a card from Adm. Richard E. Byrd, who named the mountains in honor of the society head who had granted him $75,000 for exploration.
Great carved doors from India opened onto spacious rooms, along with 29 Central American mahogany doors brought from Grosvenor’s ancestral home in Worcester County, Mass. Upstairs, 14 bedrooms provided plenty of space for family and frequent guests, including his cousin, the corpulent William Howard Taft, former president of the United States and, from 1921 to his death in 1930, chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Five days a week, nine months a year, a chauffeur would drive Grosvenor the 10 miles from his Bethesda home to his Washington office. He was, as one journalist described him, a “kindly, mild-mannered, purposeful, poker-faced, peripatetic man endowed with the sprightly air of an inquiring grasshopper.”
He was, as well, a man of idiosyncratic habits. He never touched alcohol or tobacco nor accepted advertisements for them in the magazine. Instead, every afternoon around 4 or 5, just before heading back to his Bethesda estate, Grosvenor would pour powdered Ovaltine onto a shoehorn, deposit it in a Lily cup filled with water, stir it with a penholder and “drink it down with a pleased expression,” as one observer noted in a 1942 profile.
Grosvenor retired as editor-in-chief of the magazine and president of the society in 1954. Three years later, his son Melville took over the magazine, continuing to push the boundaries of photojournalism and drive subscriptions ever upward. Today, the English edition of the magazine is read by more than 40 million, with 30 local-language editions throughout the world.
Elsie died at the Bethesda home in 1964. Two years later, Grosvenor passed away at the couple’s summer house on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, a large Victorian villa Elsie had inherited from her father.
Wild Acres remained in the Grosvenor family until 1973, when the surviving children offered the property to Montgomery County as a park. The county declined, and instead the house and 35 acres became jointly owned by the Society of American Foresters and the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation. The estate house became the Foresters’ headquarters, and in the 1980s, the foundation built a modern, brick, steel and glass office building close to the old home.
Controversy arose in 2008, when Nations Academy, part of the Edison Schools founded by former Yale president Benno Schmidt, announced plans to purchase the estate and establish a 1,600-student school on the property, with five new buildings enveloping the old manor house. Plans fell through, and nearby residents, concerned about the impact of further development, persuaded the county to designate Wild Acres and 3.5 surrounding acres as a protected historic site. The stately Grosvenor homestead, still occupied by the Foresters, has thus been preserved for future generations to admire.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.